China’s Potemkin Olympics

Finally, a narrative (in the print press, at least) beyond Michael Phelps-as-Aquaman

The swell of sour press about the Olympics may have begun with a couple of crooked teeth. It was clear to anyone who’d ever watched a person sing while smiling that nine-year-old Lin Miaoke was lip-synching her rendition of a national ode at the opening ceremonies, but that, by itself, is hardly a scandal. What stunk was the revelation that she was mouthing words sung by seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was excluded because she didn’t look, according to the subsequent admission of the musical director, “flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression.”

The media had accepted Beijing’s ban on public spitting and its efforts to scrub its filthy air as acceptable Olympics-prep primping. For China to shame a homely child for insufficient cuteness was another matter. Since then, China has continually played into what’s becoming the new motif of Olympics coverage: the fallback narrative of China as a land of polar contrasts has been reduced to one of a single China, in which much of what was built to dazzle the world is, at second glance, a crock.

One of the more thorough (and cleverly presented) catalogs of China’s Olympics misdemeanors I’ve yet seen was by Rick Reilly on (for which I write about the outdoors). He blasted China for filling sparsely attended events with herds of “volunteer fans,” erecting fences to obscure unsightly neighborhoods along the marathon route, and possibly fielding under-aged gymnasts. For serial lying, in other words.

China’s effort to present a flawless face to the world has also produced outright repression. In the current issue of Sports Illustrated, Selena Roberts echoes Reilly in reporting that China, “enabled by the IOC’s docile lords and protected by NBC’s friendly lens,” has created a simulacrum of reality, “a Truman Show” set in a city “looking as if it’s been Photoshopped.” She goes further when she visits a designated protest site, thirty minutes by taxi from the Bird’s Nest stadium, where she finds people flying kites and climbing rocks. Turns out that none of the protest applications have been granted. Two septuagenarian applicants have even been sentenced to a year at a labor camp for repeatedly applying to protest.

Sports journalists, like political journalists, have a high pomp threshold. They acknowledge that schmaltz and canned enthusiasm are the trademarks of spectacle, and they will let most hokum slide. Outright manipulation, though, raises their dander, and toy department or no, reporters live by free speech. It’s probably too much to expect the contractual broadcaster - NBC, in this case - to call for more openness; the network did, after all, pay nearly $900 million for its own exclusive rights. But bully for the print journos, including star writers at two sports media titans, finding another grand theme to these games besides Michael Phelps-as-Aquaman.

Why did it take so long for the press to find its voice? The drumbeat of critical coverage has been audible since China was awarded the Games, and only intensified with every broken promise of Internet freedom and Beijing’s pre-Games expulsion of the homeless. Everyone expected surly China to clamp down on dissent harder than Athens or Sydney; that was no surprise, so in one regard, it wasn’t as newsworthy as the sports everyone came to see. What observers didn’t predict is the general tackiness of China’s crackdowns. After giving their hosts the benefit of the doubt, the Western press has become increasingly skeptical because of the outright abuses, yes—but also because of the petty fibs and overall “phoniness.” In attempting to project strength, China instead advertised its own insecurities, and became a ripe target for criticism.

Reilly called these games the “Fauxlympics,” adding uncharacteristic poison to his pen, but the whole exercise by the Communist government in China recalls another Russian export. “[T]he entire host city has been turned into a kind of Potemkin Olympic village,” Andrew Gilligan wrote in the London Evening Standard. In surveying half-empty stands that were ballyhooed to be sold-out, he arrived at the rather charitable conclusion that China was merely desperate to appear perfect. The irony for the Chinese is that nobody in a country endowed with a free press would ever expect such a massive, rollicking endeavor to unfurl flawlessly, because when the best-laid plans inevitably do go awry, journalists delight in highlighting the hubris. “There is such a thing,” Gilligan noted, “as trying too hard.”

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Sam Eifling has won national and regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his sportswriting.